Since the retirement of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United have been in transition and struggled to hit the heights that became commonplace under the Scot’s stewardship.
However, with the European Super Cup set to be contested against Real Madrid on Tuesday night, the Old Trafford outfit can proudly state that they are back among world football’s elite.
While winning the largely exhibition game in Skopje, Macedonia, would represent the club’s fourth trophy in a year under Jose Mourinho, the fact that United are contesting competitive fixtures against opponents of Madrid’s stature is telling.
In the four years since Ferguson walked away from the Red Devils, the historic club have not been in the running for the Premier League title and have even struggled to qualify for the Champions League.
However, there is now a feeling that United have restored some of their former menace and that the club will return to be a habitual challenger for some of the game’s top prizes.
The 2017-18 campaign could well be a definitive one for Mourinho and his talented squad.
While the Portuguese trainer had some leeway in his first campaign at United, with Champions League qualification the only real pre-requisite, the bar has subsequently been raised for the former Chelsea boss.
The level of financial expenditure in the transfer window since his appointment and the quality at his disposal means that Mourinho no longer can appease the club’s fanbase or shareholders by challenging for second-rate competitions.
United need to be in the running for the Premier League title and make progress in the Champions League in 2017-18 – it is not desired by the club’s stakeholders; it is demanded.
Mourinho’s summer splurging may well have been eclipsed by that of cross-town rivals Manchester City, but the Red Devils have conducted some inspired business over the last two months.
The capture of Romelu Lukaku gives United one of the Premier League’s most-feared marksmen to lead their line, with potential that the Belgian powerhouse can develop into one of the world’s best.
While Zlatan Ibrahimovic filled a gap in attack excellently last season, the acquisition of the former Everton striker offers United more mobility, speed and movement in the final third.
Victor Lindelof is not a household name in the English game but the former Benfica enforcer arrives with a considerable reputation on the continent, offering an extra option at centre-half for Mourinho.
Possibly the shrewdest transfer business in England over the off-season has been United’s purchase of Nemanja Matic.
Mourinho knows the Serb well from his time at Chelsea, with the commanding midfielder’s arrival having two main positives for the Old Trafford club.
Matic will firstly offer United the steel in the boiler room that has been missing in recent campaigns, while having the experienced and disciplined holding stalwart to anchor the Red Devils team will surely give Paul Pogba more of a licence to have an influence higher up the pitch.
All the signs are there that Mourinho’s men are ready to make an impact at the pinnacle of the sport, but the clash against Madrid, exhibition match or not, will be a major yardstick to measure the Manchester club’s progression.
Zinedine Zidane’s men have won three of the last four Champions League crowns, possess world-class stars all over the pitch and are undoubtedly the best team on the planet in current form.
With Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the Madrid stars set to feature in Macedonia, United’s key men will have to be at their best for the team to compete.
Mourinho will be eyeing early-season Premier League fixtures against West Ham United, Swansea City, Leicester City and Stoke City as a perfect springboard to prove United are serious about putting forward a serious title challenge.
However, victory over a Madrid team boasting the world’s best player and coming off the back of another Champions League triumph, would be a massive statement from a club desperate to rekindle former glories.